Luther develops a new concept of the Word of God that concentrates on the word and image of Christ. He uses performative images and presence metaphors not only in the field of Christology, but also in the field of creation and consummation. The Word of God and the image of Christ are the only medial possibilities for proclaiming the presence of God with the prevalence of the oral word over the written word (scripture). Christ is understood as the personal Word of God, which can be communicated only through interpersonal mediality and polysemy. The cultural technique of communication makes faith possible (e.g., through the sermon, Lord’s Supper, or baptism). Rhetoric is the effective and affective way to communicate this Word of God.
The rhetoric of the crucified as the imaginative Word of God is the medium that liberates the believer from being entangled with sin, hell, and death. Yet speech cannot be functionalized to become a guaranteed presence of this word—although Christ understands himself as a communicator. At the same time, his word is a rhetorical strategy for coping with the absence of God. The cry at the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) is a verbal expression of the complete Godforsakenness of the crucified. The words on the cross express the radical absence of God. The rhapsodic cry is centered on abandonment. It cannot be whitewashed by ontology or logic. With these words Luther accentuates the negativity of the dead body as a communicative practice. The Word of God (and the word of the Christian) is characterized by polysemy: the word of the resurrection of Christ is gospel. Only this oral word enables the perception of resurrection. In many other dogmatic fields, such as creation, theological anthropology, incarnation, the sacraments, ecclesiology, and eschatology, faith and words belong together because God’s companionship with us is verbal. The iconic and metaphoric character of the word is not a representation of the fourfold sense of scripture, but a unique way to accentuate the performativity and at the same time the polysemy of the Word of God.
In Christianity, theological language must be understood against the background of the multifaceted semantic field of Logos. “Logos” (as “word” and as “linguistic reason”) is used in multiple contexts: (1) Trinitarian theological (John 1:1); (2) creation (Gen. 1:3) and revelation-theological (Jesus Christ “the Word of God” [ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ]: Rev. 19:13); and (3) soteriological-eschatological (“Word of Life,” 1 John 1:1). These references are mediated through the philosophy of language’s concept of “translation” (Johann Georg Hamann) and the idea of divine condescension into human language.
In Luther, religious language as the language of the Bible is to be understood on the one hand by its character as a living address to humankind and on the other as an immediate confession of the believer in spontaneous reaction to it. In biblical language, the Word of God, conveyed in human terms, comes closer to us than we do to our own selves and transforms our earthly existence to the goal of everlasting life.
Theological language is intellectual interpretation and conceptual reflection on religious language with a theoretical aim—in other words, its intent is to reach an agreement about itself under the conditions of the overall context; it concerns the truth of religious language and texts.
Because Luther—linguistically aware to the highest degree—recognized the specific distinctiveness of biblical language, and of New Testament language in particular, his writings contain an abundance of differentiated reflections on the state of appropriate theological language. The Word of God in our human language requires theology to have a “different” or “new” logic (and philosophy) in its articles of faith. All traditional philosophical terms and logical forms of judgment and conclusion must be “translated” into Christianity—even, for example, the concept of the human being and of the Word itself.
In particular, the unity of God and man in Christ compels a new sort of language or way of thinking. The imaginative form of spatial prepositions (such as “in”) must be rethought in determinate negation. In God, opposites coincide.
Because God’s Word is directed against the self-conception of the sinner before God, it comes to humankind essentially in the twin linguistic structure of “Law” and “Gospel”; these categories also define theological language in a specifically Reformation sense.
New Testament language, in its fundamentals, is eschatologically oriented. Hence, categories such as “substance” or “essence” (essentia) must be rephrased on the condition that nothing has already been defined, and everything is still developing. Luther undertook this with an eschatology of the Word of God.
As Luther shows in the case of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “This is my body …,” the new logic is a genuinely linguistic logic, or rather thinking from language. Traditional (formal) logic replaces the logic of real language with an artificial model.
Finally, Luther also reflects on the linguistic status of the word “God” as a grammatical subject. Here, too, he wants the word “God” to be comprehended as a fluid substance, understanding it essentially as a verb—as a linguistic expression of movement—thus embodying the Reformation idea of “for me” (pro me).
Ultimately, it is always about the important role of two linguistic aspects in theological language: grammar on the one hand, which should receive fundamental attention, and linguistic usage (usus loquendi) on the other, the comprehension of which is also crucial. Thus, Luther’s understanding of theological language could be summarized in this statement: theology, understood linguistically, is a grammar of the language of the sacred scriptures.
The article’s starting point is the observation that “scholasticism” cannot simply be taken as a unity, and thus also not Luther’s relationship to it, in spite of his often very general polemics against “the scholastics.” Rather, Luther’s discussion of specific philosophical and theological topics is analyzed, since only such debates have a clearly defined content and allow for arguments that can be examined, as is characteristic for medieval disputations. Thus, the unusual plural “scholasticisms” is used.
Martin Luther was a subject of the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. His emergence as a reformer was made possible by the sponsorship he received in Wittenberg. He owed his survival to the protection afforded him by the Elector when Emperor Charles V outlawed him and ordered that the papal ban of excommunication be enforced in the empire. The audience to which Luther appealed was the general population of German Christians, both lay and ecclesiastical, who wanted a reform of the church and the reduction of the pope’s influence over it. That his appeal resonated so widely and so profoundly had much to do with a combination of crises that had developed in the empire from the 15th century. That his reform proposals resulted in the formation of a new church owed everything to the political structures of the empire. These facilitated the suppression of radical challenges to Luther’s position. They also thwarted every effort Charles V made over several decades to ensure that the empire remained Catholic. Lutheranism became entwined with the idea of German liberty; as a result, its survival was secured in the constitution of the empire, first in 1555 and then in 1648.
Throughout his academic life, Martin Luther was in constant discussion with philosophy. He was prepared for this with a substantial study of philosophy at the University of Erfurt, finishing with a master of arts degree. In many parts of Luther’s work, there are explicit discussions of philosophy, in the interpretation of biblical texts and in the definition of theological concepts. Quite early in his theological career, Luther became aware of the problematic dominance of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy in the formation and definition of theological concepts. He was always attempting to develop a clear distinction between philosophy and theology, which freed theology from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy and from the limits of Aristotelian logic, but the same time respected the significance of philosophy. As Luther preferred clear critique and often used strident language for this, his sometimes polemical critique of philosophy, logic, and “the philosopher” (Aristotle) was often interpreted as a fundamental dismissal of philosophy. Since the late 20th century, research has presented a very different picture of Luther’s understanding of philosophy, of the role and significance he gave to philosophy theoretically and in his practical academic work, and of the relation of Luther’s references to Aristotle and the concrete Aristotelian philosophy in scholasticism, as well as to the relationship between theology and philosophy in general. All this research showed how deeply Luther was rooted in the philosophical discourses and contexts of late scholasticism and involved in the debates of nominalism. But this research also made clear how Luther successfully struggled to come to a very different model of the relationship between theology and philosophy than the models of scholasticism, which secured the independence of both intellectual disciplines despite their close relatedness their relatedness. Luther’s understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s significance for theology is closely related to his concept of reason. Again, there is some polemical critique of reason in Luther’s writings, but in fact Luther had a high appreciation of reason, when reason was in exploring the physical, social, and psychic reality and in shaping the natural, social, and moral world. Luther was critical and polemical toward reason when it was used in matters of faith. But although the use of reason in theology had its limits, it was nevertheless indispensable in theological work. This was especially clear in Luther’s hermeneutics, as reason was the means to come to the external clarity of biblical texts in the process of interpretation.
Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.
What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).
Derek R. Nelson
So much is known about Martin Luther, and the stakes of telling his story have been perceived to be so high, that an astonishing variety of presentations of his life have been offered. Some of his earliest opponents sought to discredit and vilify Luther by highlighting and in some cases fabricating shameful details about his life. His collaborators and sympathizers came to his defense. With similar one-sidedness, they inaugurated a long tradition of Luther hagiography. The man who did much to diminish the role that devotion to the saints played in the piety of Christianity came to function much like a Protestant saint. Miracles, such as his portrait not burning up in house fires, even came to be attributed to him.
As the process of confessionalization took place, subsequent generations told the Luther story as one of divine intervention in history. The monastic theologian became an evangelical prophet as well as a “national” hero. For Roman Catholics, Luther became the quintessential heresiarch, because the spate of divisions emerging from medieval Christendom were thought to be attributed to him, and thus any attempt to characterize and caricature him could be justified by appealing to the urgency to refute him. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biographies of Luther display evidence of the growing sensitivity to objective historical scrutiny but maintained their confessional biases. Protestants in their 20th-century portrayals tend to exemplify the dominant philosophical and methodological interests of biographers: existentialists see an existentialist Luther, psychoanalysts see a manic-depressive Luther, and so on.
Portrayals of Luther come in other media, as well. Stage adaptations and numerous films show a tormented, angst-ridden soul who faces his pain with sometimes heroic resolve. And Luther becomes a wax nose, easily bent for organizers’ agendas, when he is depicted and contextualized in various anniversaries of his life, death, and Reformation.
Ronald K. Rittgers
Martin Luther vigorously opposed the traditional sacrament of penance and the theology upon which it was based, arguing that they had no scriptural warrant and that they promoted a troubled conscience, works righteousness, and clerical tyranny. As Luther developed his evangelical soteriology, he dismantled the entire late medieval penitential system, seeking to provide for himself and others what he believed this system lacked: an enduring sense of forgiveness of sin. Luther believed that justification by faith offered this certainty of absolution. Still, despite Luther’s opposition to the sacrament of penance, he was a strong supporter of a reformed version of private confession, arguing that it allowed the consoling promises of the Word to be applied directly to the troubled conscience. Owing to Luther’s support for the practice, Lutherans soon developed an evangelical version of private confession that appeared in the vast majority of Lutheran church ordinances as a mandatory rite. However, there was disagreement among Lutherans as to the theological justification for this new rite, with some arguing that it was a sacrament, while others, including Luther, maintained that it was not. This disagreement contributed to an important debate about private confession in the 1530s, the so-called Nürnberg Absolution Controversy, in which Andreas Osiander sought to make a compelling case for the sacramental status of private confession. Luther was directly involved in this debate, and while he shared Osiander’s enthusiasm for private confession, he disagreed with Osiander’s theology of the power of keys. Luther’s view won out, but Osiander raised important questions about the theological justification for Lutheran private confession as a mandatory rite.
Despite positive remarks that Martin Luther made about the “Greeks,” neither he nor Philip Melanchthon possessed personal knowledge of, nor extensive contact with, the Orthodox Church of the 16th century. Second-generation Lutheran exchanges with Constantinople revealed the theological differences between the Orthodox and the churches of the Augsburg Confession. Despite sporadic 17th- and 18th-century encounters with the Orthodox that initially suggested common theological ground upon which to criticize Roman Catholic error, Lutherans came to view the Orthodox (whether Chalcedonian or Oriental) as suffering from corruptions nearly as alarming as those tolerated in Rome. Nineteenth- and 20th-century exchanges broadened to include the Orthodox in Russia, where a limited impact of Lutheran Pietism briefly influenced educational reforms. Imperial Germany’s alliance with the Ottomans prior and subsequent to World War I and the Armenian genocide further alienated the Orthodox from Lutherans and Protestants in general. Only in the late 1960s did serious theological dialogue begin, resulting in both national and international meetings. The rise of the Finnish school of Lutheran theology, with its interest in exploring the possible similarities between the Orthodox understanding of theosis and a transformative understanding of Lutheran justification, gave renewed impetus to dialogues into the early 21st century. Orthodox responses to Lutheran theology five hundred years after the Reformation now focus on questions of pneumatology, ecclesiology, and debates centered around questions of theological anthropology, with specific concerns about gender and sexuality.
Luther’s adoption of the theology of the via moderna (also called the Nominalists) varied during the late medieval period. This school of thought had developed during the 15th century mainly as a method for interpreting Aristotle and relied on certain 14th-century authorities, such as William of Ockham, John Buridan, Gregory of Rimini, and Peter of Ailly among others. Luther studied philosophy according to the via moderna in Erfurt, where his teachers Jodocus Trutfetter and Bartholomaeus Arnoldi of Usingen represented a position that tolerated the Thomist and Scotist views. The school also featured a specific kind of theology based on its interpretation of Aristotle. Among the most influential theologians in the German via moderna was Gabriel Biel in Tübingen, whose theology was crucial for Luther’s understanding of the school’s positions. Besides Ockham, whom Biel mentioned as his main authority in his Sentences commentary, Biel adopted the positions of several other authors, even outside the common authorities of the via moderna. Other influential theologians and philosophers affiliated with the via moderna were John Mair in Paris and John Eck in Ingolstadt. Later both became adversaries of Luther and the Lutherans, as did Luther’s former teacher Usingen. The University of Wittenberg did not support the via moderna at all. Thomist and Scotist forms of the via antiqua were predominant among its academics, including the later Reformer Andreas Bodenstein of Karlstadt. During his early years as a student in Erfurt, Luther remained largely among the camp of the via moderna. Soon after moving to Wittenberg, Luther developed his criticism of Aristotle and late medieval theology, where his main target was Biel’s theology, especially his doctrine of grace. However, during those years Luther retained much of his early education, including an interpretation of Aristotle in which he adopted several of Ockham’s ideas. During his later years, Luther made use of terminological tools of the via moderna, even when opposing some of its theological positions.